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Senator Bob Mensch

The Senate Appropriations Committee concluded a second week of hearings on Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed 2016-17 state budget. Below is a recap of this week’s hearing testimony, my questions to department heads, and video of each hearing. (A summary of last week’s hearings is here.)  

State Revenues Up in February

With Governor Wolf continuing his demands for more state revenues via massive tax increases, it’s worth noting that revenues are already going up under current tax rates.

February 2016 General Fund revenues of $1.85 billion increased by $112 million (6.4 percent) compared to the same month in the prior year. This is 2.9 percent higher than anticipated.

Year-to-date revenues of $17.75 billion increased by $314 million (1.8 percent) compared to the prior fiscal year. Revenues are made up of tax revenues and non-tax revenues. Tax revenues are up 3.4 percent for the fiscal year.

You can find more information in the February edition of the Monthly Trends Report from the Independent Fiscal Office and from the Senate Appropriations Committee February Revenue Update, above.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Corrections/Probation and Parole

2/29/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Corrections

Senator Mensch asked about the rising pension costs for Corrections and noted that the 772 percent increase over 10 years shows need for reform.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Board of Probation and Parole Chairman Michael Green outlined steps to reduce costs. Topics discussed included:

  • Pennsylvania’s corrections system has fewer inmates but costs keep going up, driven by pension and overtime costs.
  • Challenges of handling inmates with mental health issues.
  • The threat to Corrections Officer safety due to overcrowding.
  • SCI Camp Hill now uses natural gas and is saving millions of dollars.
  • The system cannot attract enough psychiatrists and psychologists for prison work.
  • The use of the Vivitrol heroin overdose drug in prisons.
  • The need for legislators and communities to receive advance notice before a prison facility is closed.
  • The high cost of aging, high-risk inmates.
  • State funds used for the diversion of state prisoners to local county facilities for short-term sentences.
  • Transitioning from Graterford Prison to the new SCI Phoenix.
  • Use of tele-medicine and tele-psychiatry, and Community Corrections Centers.
  • The possibility of privatizing institutions to curb skyrocketing personnel costs.
  • The need to maintain the independence of the Victims Advocate Office.
  • The effect of Veterans Courts on corrections system.
  • Abuse of leave time by Corrections personnel.

Full Hearing


2/29/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Transportation

Senator Mensch asked Secretary Leslie Richards about addressing road issues in the 24th Senatorial District.

PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards fielded questions from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee about the state’s new transportation funding program and a plan to eliminate registration stickers in favor of a more modern monitoring system. Other topics discussed included:

  • Status of projects being funded under Act 89, the Transportation Funding Plan, particularly structurally deficient bridges.
  • The elimination of registration stickers and the use of license plate readers by police.
  • A proposal to change driver license renewal from four to eight years to cut costs.
  • Efforts to promote the use of natural gas in Pennsylvania, including the construction of vehicle fueling stations.
  • Legislation that would allow motorists who have minor infractions to avoid losing their license for long periods of time.
  • The need to maintain smaller rural roads.
  • Funding that is being diverted for use by the State Police.
  • The impact of a merger between Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific railroads.
  • The cost of responding to Winter Storm Jonas.
  • The decline in the department’s Shared Ride appropriation.
  • Duplication between the services provided by the Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Full Hearing

Labor and Industry

2/29/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Labor & Industry

Senator Mensch discussed the successful SEWN layoff aversion program, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and shared his thoughts on minimum wage.

During a budget hearing with Secretary of Labor & Industry Kathy Manderino, members of the Appropriations Committee discussed reforms that impacted her Department. Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The Vocational Rehabilitation Fund and potential changes to the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
  • Centers for Independent Living and assistive technology.
  • State employment indicators.
  • Unemployment Compensation reform/seasonal workers/call center wait times.
  • The Department’s technological deficiencies.

Full Hearing

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Department of General Services

3/1/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Dept. of General Services

Senator Mensch asked Secretary Curt Topper how they could install true measurements to effectively control the direction of government and its spending.

Secretary of General Services Curtis Topper was questioned by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on what his department is doing to cut costs. Other areas of questioning focused on:

  • An update on security efforts across the Commonwealth and within the Capitol Complex as well as concerns about facilities within the Capitol that are in need of constant maintenance.
  • The PA Standards Laboratory and whether it is duplicative with other departments.
  • Reductions in department manpower, the amount of space the department is now using, and an ongoing effort to reduce vacant state property to save tax dollars.
  • The need to improve and better implement technology to cut costs and be more effective.
  • The use of natural gas in state buildings to save money.
  • The sale of the State Hospital in Harrisburg, where employees who previously worked there will go and what costs will be realized.
  • Leasing state vehicles, including reimbursement rates, the cost to maintain and insure leased vehicles and whether they are cost-effective alternatives.
  • Developing new approaches in dealing with the fiscal challenges facing the state.

Full Hearing

Department of Aging

3/1/16 - Budget Hearing Questions: Aging

Senator Mensch asked if any progress had been made by the Aging Department in regards to the recommendations made by the Alzheimer's Task Force.

Secretary of Aging Teresa Osborne discussed the state services provided to the 2.7 million Pennsylvanians over the age of 60 during a budget hearing on her Department with the Senate Appropriations Committee. Topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • Services provided by senior centers and Area Agencies on Aging.
  • PennCare and home- and community-based services.
  • Decreasing Lottery reserve funds.
  • Support and demand for PACE/PACENET and prices charged for drugs.
  • Increasing the retirement age.
  • The property tax burden on senior citizens.
  • The growing impact of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Lottery machines in state stores.

Full Hearing


Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding discussed the Governor’s proposed zero funding in Fiscal Year 2016-17 and line-item vetoed funding in Fiscal Year 2015-16 for key agriculture programs and initiatives during a budget hearing with the Senate Appropriations Committee. Other topics discussed during the hearing included:

  • The Race Horse Development Fund and the horse racing industry in Pennsylvania.
  • Chesapeake Bay Watershed strategies and their impact on farmers.
  • The role of Conservation Districts.
  • Flat state funding of agriculture research and extension.
  • Avian influenza.
  • State support for fairs and the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
  • The Homegrown by Heroes program supporting veterans.
  • Dog licenses and dog law enforcement.
  • Food safety inspections.

Full Hearing

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

State-Related Universities

Presidents of the State-Related Universities took questions from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on a number of issues related to higher education, including:

  • The affordability of college education and the large amount of debt students are incurring.
  • The amount of funding requested by the state –related universities, particularly during the current budget crisis.
  • A status report of trends in enrollment rates at various campuses.
  • The significant role that universities play in economic development and their ability to attract and retain quality faculty and staff.
  • The amount of financial aid that the institutions offer and the percentage that is awarded to in-state students.
  • The rationale for admissions decisions and whether in-state students are treated equitably.
  • The return Commonwealth residents see from their investment in universities, including health care.
  • A status report on retention and graduation rates.
  • Concerns about adequate funding for agricultural research and development.
  • A lack of state control over benefits and compensation and the need for greater transparency in compensation decisions.
  • Pension costs and how much they have increased in recent years.

Full Hearing

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

State System of Higher Education Chancellor Frank Brogan, Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Michael Driscoll, and East Stroudsburg University senior Drew Johnson discussed programs and initiatives underway at PASSHE’s 14 member universities. Specific issues discussed during the budget hearing included:

  • Strategic planning for the system’s future.
  • The size of universities’ reserve funds.
  • Impacts of subsidizing underperforming universities.
  • The ability to eliminate redundancies of services.
  • The impact of rising pension and benefit costs.
  • The per-credit tuition initiative.
  • Percentages of graduates working in their field of study and staying in Pennsylvania.
  • PASSHE programs for veterans.
  • Initiatives to improve campus safety.

Full Hearing

Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency

PEMA Director Richard Flinn fielded quires on questions related to the state’s ability to prepare for and respond to emergencies, including:

  • An update on PEMA’s new facility and when the move will be completed.
  • Questions about hiring a state meteorologist and whether it is duplicative, costly and unnecessary.
  • Coordination among county emergency management planners.
  • Outreach efforts to disabled individuals during disasters.
  • The high cost to municipalities of paid fire and police personnel.
  • The renewal of county hazard mitigation plans.
  • Training to first responders in train derailments involving hazardous chemicals.

Full Hearing

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